Image courtesy of American History. Image courtesy of American History.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Very famously, General Douglas MacArthur once said, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”  But is this true?  Does sport participation really produce better military leaders?

I spend a good deal of time running and love exercise.  I grew up playing hockey, soccer, and a little rugby, some of which extended into college.  I’m the Officer in Charge of the Marathon Team at West Point – so I still maintain a strong connection with organized sports.  But long-held, standing assumptions about the way the world works can be wrong.  Recent academic studies have debunked the importance of breakfast in weight loss, the necessity of post-run cool downs, and the value of stretching for (running) injury prevention. As Mark Twain put it, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

From what I can tell there is absolutely no scholarship on the link between sports and military leadership.  Granted, there is likely a fair amount about the general connections between leadership and sports.  But these would represent generic studies inapplicable to a military audience.  For example, though an ex-quarterback may develop skills suitable for running a moderate-sized used car dealership – these ought not to be assumed sufficient for the chaotic violence of battlefield leadership. Consider the cases of two high performing former Army quarterbacks, Trent Steelman (West Point Class of 2012) and Nathan Sassaman (West Point Class of 1985).  As athletes these two may have been successful on the football field – while with respect to war, one failed outright while the other showed deep flaws that signaled he was not prepared for the rigors of combat.  The two contests are simply not the same: on the battlefield, there is no referee to appeal to, no clock to run out, and no meaningful scoreboard as the perpetual threat of violent veto exists to cancel any “results.” Yet we still persist in this sort of metaphorical military-football echo chamber.

In truth, platoon leadership is often more analogous to coaching than the actual playing of a sport.  For example, this past summer training I observed a cadet platoon leader taking his 40-person cadet platoon to an L-shaped ambush (of an enemy squad-sized element).  The lacrosse-playing cadet platoon leader was doing really well until the lead element from the enemy squad came into his field of view.  Instead of controlling his platoon, he was the first in the platoon to open fire and maintained sustained fire on the enemy squad throughout the engagement. His squad leaders tried calling the platoon leader on the radio several times, but, as he was busy firing at the enemy, he did not exert control over his platoon.  In this case, though the platoon leader’s job was to be engaged in the contest just as much as his soldiers, his role should have been different – slightly less physical, requiring more communication.  In other words, kind of like a coach.

All this is not to deny any connection at all between sports and military leadership. Admittedly, it is intuitive that any group of people undertaking shared discomfort for some objective has to have some broad value.  But what precisely is that value?  Is it translatable to a military environment? How do we know?  If we were to actually study this with any rigor, my sense is that we would find that sports participation matters, but not as much as we think it does beyond the maintenance of healthy personal habits and a bit of social development.  I actually think we’d find that we ought to reallocate time to military specific activities – because the best preparation for military leadership is actual military training with opportunities for military leadership (insightful analysis there!).

At West Point, we hang so much on MacArthur’s statement; specifically, that the development of a “winning culture” will make for better platoon leaders.  And now we’re arguing over substantive changes to the cadet program which tip the balance in favor of the football “fields of friendly strife.”  I’m not entirely sure which way to come down on the football issue, but I do know one thing: we should not simply assume that sports participation makes for better military leaders.